In an ironic move to address a bad economic outlook, the University of Alaska Fairbanks administration has voted to eliminate its economics program. UAF administrators recommended dissolving the program to help alleviate UA system budget cuts. The cuts were the inevitable consequence of the state’s $4 billion budget deficit that was itself the consequence of plummeting oil prices. Responding to unyielding economic challenges by cutting economic education to those about to enter the workforce will serve to ensure that there will be no informed response to the boom-bust cycle that has been Alaska’s curse.
Last year, the UAF administration froze enrollment in the program and put the very existence of the economics major up for review. In contrast, the university faculty review committee voted in favor of retaining the major, calling it “vital” to the institution. Yet the deans overseeing the administrative review voted unanimously to discontinue the program. If the program is eliminated, the University of Alaska Anchorage would be the only public institution in the state to offer a degree in economics.
When polled, the majority of American voters have consistently reported the economy as the most important issue affecting their votes. Alaska had the country’s highest underemployment rate in 2016 at 12.8 percent. With less than one-third of employers saying that college graduates are well prepared to think critically, to work with statistics and to analyze complex problems, decisions to eliminate programs like economics will only widen the skills gap between college graduates’ intellectual competencies and their career readiness.
Alaska undergraduates would still have the option to major in economics in-state if they attend UAA. In any other state, this might be a simple solution for students. However, Alaska is a special case. As Sen. Lisa Murkowski pointed out in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s nomination hearing: For the state’s students, “alternatives and options are severely limited, not because we don’t want them, but our geography really isolates us.” One could assume this issue would hit home for Alaska’s senators, because Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan majored in economics — at out-of-state institutions.
UAF administrators owe the public an explanation. Singling out this vital program does not seem a prudent strategy for cutting costs. Moreover, considering enrollment in economics program has grown more than 400 percent since 2008, it is counterproductive to eliminate access to a major just as it is increasing in demand. If these budding economists are forced to matriculate out of state, then the loss in tuition dollars could outweigh any initial cost savings.
UAF’s mission states that it “educates students for active citizenship and prepares them for lifelong learning and careers.” The UA Board of Regents, the higher education governing body of the state, has an opportunity to help set things right by investigating the cost of programs and majors and helping its administrators and faculty find a way to save economics. Regents and administrators must realize that the financial crisis facing the university system is a moment to affirm, not abandon, its mission to give students the tools for successful careers and lives that are civically engaged and intellectually enriched.
Of course, it’s impossible to make an argument for economics education while ignoring fiscal realities. Alaska faces a budget crisis of immense magnitude. Because of its reliance on the oil industry and government employment, Alaska has one of the most volatile economies in the country. In fact, more than 75 percent of the state budget comes from oil revenues. When the price of crude oil plummeted below $10 per barrel in 1986, about 30,000 residents left the state and mortgage default rates rose to 20 percent while the rest of the country experienced an economic upturn. These factors result in what Clive Thomas, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Southeast, recently called an “economic implosion” for Alaska. But, this is all the more reason to ensure the state’s students are well-versed in economics.
Fluctuating public funding is an unavoidable reality for all colleges and universities, but especially for those in Alaska. Trading short-term budget deficits, however, for long-term intellectual debt is self-
destructive. The absence of economic education in any state’s public universities only ensures future leaders will be less knowledgeable about their limited resources, guaranteeing future financial disasters as inevitable.